Patricia Marx’s second novel, Starting From Happy, is written in short bursts that the comedy writer has christened “chaplettes.” Longer than a tweet but shorter than many blog posts, these mini-chapters tell the checkered love story of a deeply bizarre couple named Wally and Imogene. Interspersed with drawings and personal asides (“Patty’s seen Imogene’s calendar, however, and wants to know: since when does ‘get super to change light bulb’ constitute being busy?”), Starting From Happy is frequently hilarious and above all, a quick read.
Marx prides herself on her brevity—she describes herself as “temperamentally terse.” The New Yorker contributor talked to Slate about being a late bloomer and getting hooked on coke—Diet Coke, that is—as a writer on Saturday Night Live in the ‘80s.
Slate: Starting From Happy follows the relationship between the magnificently named Wally Yez and Imogene Gilfeather. Why did you think these “chaplettes” were the best way to tell this personal history?
Patricia Marx: So many reasons. The main reason being I write for the ADD reader. I can’t stand to be bored, I’m really sensitive to other people being bored, and I wanted to keep it moving. That’s one answer. Another answer is that my last book, Him Her Him Again the End of Him (which is not about transgender), was as introspective and wordy as I can write. I’m temperamentally terse. And so I thought I’d like to do something as far away from that as I can. I thought I’d just be as fast and detached as I can. Also it seemed like it suited this story I was telling, which is a relationship that goes by before you know it, a life that goes by before you know it. Finally, I once read Mrs. Bridge [by Evan S. Connell] when I was young and Speedboatby Renata Adler and thinking: short chapters. If I ever write a novel, maybe I could do that. So I beat them to it, since my writing hardly even qualifies as chapters, I had to come up with a new name.
Slate: I liked the name chaplette. The narrator in your first novel was unnamed. How’d you come up with the wild names for this one? Phone book? Acid trip?
Marx: That’s my favorite part about writing. I love coming up with names. It’s really too bad I didn’t have children because I could have named them, although it would be awful for them, probably. They’d get made fun of.
Slate: Do you have pets? Do they have great names?
Marx: No, I had pets when I was little though. I had a German shepherd named Karl—Karl Marx, get it? And I had a cat that I got when I was around 6, and I named it—get ready for this originality—Tiger. Guess why? It looked like a tiger.
Slate: In an interview you did with Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker a few years back, it sounded like conciseness has always been part of your style. Were you serious when you said that you were influenced by the World Book Encyclopedia?
Marx: I was very serious. It just seems they knew how to organize it—the land and its peoples—and they got the message across, I thought elegantly. I’m a no-words-wasted kind of person.
Slate: That makes sense since you’re a comedy writer.
Marx: That is my training. One false word, one extra word, and somebody’s thinking about how they have to buy paper towels at the store. Brevity is very important. If you’re going to be longwinded, it should be for a purpose. Not just because you like your words.
Slate: What made you decide to make Imogene a lingerie designer?
Marx: I knew who she was, and she was very much not like a lingerie designer. She wasn’t playful and she wasn’t frivolous. She was covered, as a person, psychologically. So I thought it would be a nice contrast. Plus, I don’t know if at that point I had decided I was going to draw, but I thought I could draw rudimentary versions of underwear, so I thought that would be fun. Also, I don’t really write about sex very much, so I thought I’d better get sex in somehow. I have a friend of a friend who designs lingerie, and in the back of my mind, I thought, I’ll go interview her. But it turns out I’m lazier than the back of my mind and I never did. I just thought, how hard could it be? It has to be kind of straightforward. And we always have the Internet to fall back on for research. I’ve also seen underwear. In stores.
Slate: In Him Her Him Again the End of Him, the main character is stuck romantically and sexually, and she’s a late bloomer. I know that the book is loosely autobiographical—were you a late bloomer as well?
Marx: Very, very late. I haven’t even bloomed yet. I attribute it to being short, so you figure you’re always treated as younger than you are. Maybe that means I get extra years in my life, or I’ll get acne.
Slate: As The New Yorker’s shopping correspondent, what are you coveting this fall?
Marx: More closet space. I have so much crap and now I have a boyfriend living with me and we have so much crap and nowhere to put it. I actually have not been shopping for a while. I just did grocery stores for The New Yorker, and now I’m doing retirement coaching.
Slate: What is retirement coaching?
Marx: The problem with doing a story is you usually think it’s really hackneyed and old and then people go, “What? I never heard of that?” It’s just this semi-bogus thing where you hire a friend/mother/sports trainer that will help you retire, except the problem is that no one retires anymore. The person helps you not retire, really. It’s for the generation who had help doing everything. They can’t even play golf without a tutor.
Slate: I know you were the first woman ever on the Harvard Lampoon. How sick are you of answering questions about being a woman in comedy?
Marx: I’m not really so sick about it, but I never have a very good answer. It seems like it’s not altogether different from being a guy. When I started out I was on a lot of TV shows with guys. And I was sort of the token girl, which worked for me a little bit, too. But it seems like women’s comedy and men’s comedy have met in the middle and are not terribly different anymore. I have nothing really that enlightening to say.
Slate: Some commentators believe that Bridesmaids has been a game changer for women in comedy. Have you seen it? Do you agree?
Marx: I have to see it. I’ve heard great stuff about it. I gather it’s kind of a Judd Apatow movie about women. I don’t know if it would be a game changer. They’re still going to do the other kind of movies [about women]. I think that everybody’s kind of gravitated down together. In theory I don’t know if it’s such a wonderful thing that we can be as raunchy as men. Not that I have anything against raunchiness. But it’s not the ultimate goal.
Slate: Speaking of raunchiness, I’ve read several interviews where you talk about your time as a writer on Saturday Night Live. You always talk about the free-flowing Diet Coke—not actual coke, which is SNL’s reputation. Was the place not that debauched when you were there or were you just a good girl?
Marx: I’m a goody-goody. I’m the person who sits in the back row, makes fun of the teacher, and secretly does the extra-credit work. I was also, remember I’m a late bloomer—it was my first job, I had been in graduate school in England. There might have been a lot more going on than Diet Coke. Maybe even real Coca-Cola. But I would have been the last to know it. I think I even lived once with an alcoholic and didn’t even know it. For somebody who is a journalist, I can be awfully unobservant sometimes.
Slate: What else are you working on now?
Marx: I’m working on a musical about Mona Lisa. I’m going to be teaching screenwriting at Princeton in the fall.
Slate: When you teach screenwriting, are there certain screenplays that you always teach?
Marx: I’ve never done it before. I have a list of things. Everyone thinks that Chinatown is the best screenplay. I’m not sure it is. I’d like them to read the Graduate. I’d maybe want them to read Badlands, which I recently saw and thought was a perfect movie.
Slate: Finally, what’s the best thing you’ve seen on the Internet this week?
Marx: This sounds like bragging, and I guess it is. The best thing I’ve seen is the trailer that Simon & Schuster did for my book. They did it so well. I didn’t do it so I can say that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.